The common belief that veterans are incompatible with corporate culture is an insidious myth. It’s not true. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert reveals some of the secrets that every good Human Resources manager should know about assessing veterans’ potential ‘compatibility’.
This is probably the third of what’s likely  to be a four-part series here on Business Reporter regarding the hiring of veterans (or, in the case of my first column of 2016, not hiring veterans). It’s a sore subject for me for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m one of those people who occasionally gets run over by this syndrome. Not often, mind you; just enough to be significantly vexed by it. More importantly, it affects my troopers and that enrages me. I invest everything that I believe and stand for in my squaddies, and I’ll damned if I’m going to stand by idly and watch their career hopes get dashed by some low-level functionary’s egregiously irrational prejudices.
To briefly summarize my argument from my last two pieces: I don’t agree with some companies’ and some managers’ decisions to refuse to hire us veterans. I think that it’s bloody stupid idea. That being said, I believe in companies’ rights to pursue legal self-determination. We’re not a protected class. It’s illegal and immoral to say, ‘I won’t hire women,’ but it’s not illegal to say, ‘I won’t hire veterans.’ It’s repugnant. It’s daft. It’s not illegal.
I don’t agree with the practice because I see veterans as an excellent resource in most businesses. Admittedly, I’m biased, but I’m not blind to our faults; sometimes, some of us really are incompatible with other peoples’ cultures. If I’m honest, I’d much rather find out that I’m a bad office culture fit before I accept a role with a company that I’m not likely to get along in. That way, I don’t waste anyone’s time (including my own). If it’s a true problem, then no harm’s done.
That being said, I believe there’s a huge difference between the position ‘you’ll have difficulty fitting in with our office culture’ and the flat assertion ‘you can’t fit in with our office culture’. I refuse to accept the ‘you can’t’ argument because I know that it’s 99 per cent unlikely to be true.
First off, I recognize the cultural forces in play. I spent my undergraduate days voraciously learning how to observe and interpret social dynamics.  I’ll heed the advice of another social scientist, but not the ramblings of a dime-a-dozen MBA. The majority of businesspeople that I’ve met and worked with couldn’t articulate their cultural values or motivating factors to save their lives. Most people, in truth, aren’t actively aware of the social forces in-play around them; they navigate their days acting on the various admonitions they’ve internalized without being able to explain why exactly they do what they do. That’s all right. That’s perfectly normal. It’s how societies function.
Second, an assessment of a person’s potential compatibility with a given group is more of an opinion than a measurement. The less that you actually know another person, the less accurate your mental model of their personality, desires, needs, prejudices and idiosyncrasies will be. I’m eager to listen to the assessments of my close mates. That is, the people who have known me for years, who have worked with me during periods of great stress, and who have experienced the unfiltered ‘me’. Those people are well-positioned to make a projection about me based on what they know of me.
Conversely, there’s no way in hell that even the very best HR screener can tell how another human being is likely to behave or how well a stranger will get along from just reading a résumé. Hell, even an hour-long interview won’t tell you much about another person because very few people (on either side of the table) ever present their innermost selves while interviewing. They lie. It’s what people do if they haven’t been trained how to interview properly. Any assessment made during or based upon an initial introductions is bound to be incomplete, and will probably be badly skewed.
Finally (and most importantly), an assessment of another person’s ‘compatibility’ is almost always derived from close observation of the subject. The problem with that is that if you only observe a subject in one setting, you’ll only then see one version of the person, and not all of the available versions of him- or herself that may be brought into play. The classic Western conceit of the consistent self relies on the assumption that the persona observed is the only persona that the subject has available. That belief is actually not true. People switch in and out of several similar-but-subtly-different versions of themselves that are context-driven: the way a person acts around their own small children, for example, is very different from how they act around their co-workers. Ditto how a person might act piously in church, rowdy at a football match, provocative at a nightclub and deathly dull when they think no one is watching. It’s all the same person; just different performances that are oriented to different stages and audiences.
Therefore, if I’m going to be flatly denied a chance to advance my case for why I should be XYZ Inc.’s next chief allusions officer, then I want a reasonable assurance that person rejecting me really understands his or her operating environment. I want to see that he or she has completed a comprehensive analysis of me, and understands how to interpret the results. If they can articulate the logic and evidence that they used to support their argument, then I’ll be satisfied with their conclusions. More than, that, I’ll be happy with it. We can cheerfully shake hands, agree to part ways and there won’t be any hard feelings afterwards.
If, on the other hand, the other person can’t back up their assertions of my potential future incompatibility with actual facts, then I’m not having it. If the screener’s rejection of me on a personal (not professional) level is based on irrational instinct, then I’m inclined to push back and demand a real accounting. Give me a fair chance to introduce myself and leave an actual impression; don’t judge my character based on the shadow that you think I’ll cast.
I recommend that all of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms do exactly the same: politely and respectfully push back. Don’t accept a groundless dismissal. In turn, I’m not putting up with that sort of malarkey when it comes to my people. If and when a headhunter, or HR screener, or hiring manager tries fobbing me off with a load of bollocks about how Captain Jane won’t be able to hack it in the cubicle farm, be cautioned that I’m likely to get quite Prussian with you.
Some advice for people living on the other side of this equation – that is to say, the civilian HR screeners, headhunters or hiring managers who don’t quite understand us (and might even fear us) – understand that us old grunts respect the position that we’re placing you in. If you’re truly concerned about how your workgroup might react to our presence, then rest assured that we’re concerned about it too (and often for exactly the same reasons). We don’t just want a job; we want to be part of a vibrant and successful team. Just be aware that the things that you’re worried about may well be overblown. The odds are very, very good that the veteran in your waiting room possesses the sort of social chameleon powers that negate the problems that you’re projecting entirely.
Here’s what I’m on about: all of us that did a hitch in the service came out of civil society. Before we put on a uniform and subsumed our identity in favour of a common squaddie template, we were young punks, or sassy socialists, or jocks, or nerds. That is to say, we were civilians too… people just like everyone else. We were all every bit as individualistic and quirky as everyone else was at that same age. Once we entered the military, we learned in boot camp (by whatever name it went by) how to compartmentalize our personal idiosyncrasies in order to function predictably in a large, mechanistic and impersonal organization. That’s what boot camp is all about: learning how to put on a new costume and to play a new role in order to optimize one’s ability function in a collective setting.
Further, most people who have served didn’t actually transmogrify into a completely new person in basic training; they just learned how to play the G.I. Joe role during working hours and then switch back to being regular Bob or Alice once the uniform came off at the end of the duty day. It was more full-immersion improve theatre than personality programming.
Reservists and Guardsmen  are even better at the art of switching the different personalities on and off, since they have to seamlessly leave the corporate life on Friday night, turn on the G.I. Joe persona on Saturday morning, interact with all the regular squaddies as if they, too, had never left the service, go home and then turn it all back off again first thing on Monday morning when they head back to the office. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s bloody exhausting, but it’s entirely achievable. I managed it for 80 per cent of my career. Heck, my father-in-law managed to pull it off for 40 years, and never had any trouble fitting in with his counterparts in civil society.
That ability to costume up, step onto a stage, and convincingly play a role before a sceptical audience is a highly-desirable competitive advantage in the business world. Most squaddies share a finely-honed sense of our surroundings. We can suppress whatever odious personal habits we possess and present ourselves to strangers as suave, calm, and quiet professionals no matter how hairy things are getting in the office. That sort of stage presence and self-control help to calm things down in a crisis situation. It inspires others, and helps people to do their best work.
When you break it down, the ‘incompatibility’ argument collapses under its own weight. Veterans may have had very different formative life experiences from ‘pure’ civilians, but those experiences don’t necessarily make veterans unable to function normally in civil society. When a company hires a newly-separated veteran, they’re hiring someone who is taking off one costume – one that they’ve probably mastered – in order to play a new role more suited for an office, or factory or jobsite. Like any good performer, the new guy or gal needs to work into the new role. There will be some bungled lines and missed cues; those are perfectly normal events for any new hire who hasn’t experienced the new operating environment before. Don’t freak out about the possibility of conflict or fear of drama; just be patient and offer the new hire some advice on how best to get along. They’ll pick up the role quickly enough that you’ll believe that they were born to it.
Above all else, make sure that you’re giving your candidates a fair, fighting chance to show you who they really are. Forget the bone-dry verbal interrogation in the featureless borrowed office; those discussions rarely ever reveal any practical data. Instead, take a prospective candidate out on a walk, or to a café, or outside to the smoking deck behind the office. Have an actual conversation – the sort you might have with a new member of your social circle – and get to know him or her as a person. Once both of you relax and let go of the ‘terrified interview rictus’, you might just come to realize that y’all have more in common with each other than you’d assumed. You’ll realize that your veteran candidate will get along fine with everyone else. Stop borrowing trouble.
 I say ‘likely’ because I hadn’t actually planned this series out, if I’m honest. The entire subject came up unexpectedly during a discussion with a few headhunters down at our local. The second piece nagged at me for nearly two weeks, getting in the way of everything else that I tried to write, until I finally gave up and told that story as well. This week’s piece came about much the same way: I felt an overwhelming need to tell this particular story. I feel like there’s still another one building up pressure behind this, so I’m guessing I can get back to making LINUX quips after that’s all sorted.
 Undergraduate major in sociology, minor in anthropology.
 Part-time squaddies, however your particularly service brands them.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.